The most common type of brain tumor, glioblastoma, is also the most aggressive — and hardest to treat.
Glioblastoma (GBM) is a fast-growing cancer that forms tumors on the supportive tissue of the brain. This disease most often affects adults and develops in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes.
GBM is classified as a grade IV tumor, the highest level. Grade IV tumors can grow and spread quickly.
Highly malignant because its cells rapidly reproduce, glioblastoma tumors are remarkably difficult to remove, though some patients can undergo surgery.
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What Causes Glioblastoma?
Doctors do not know the exact cause of glioblastoma. It develops from glial cells, which support nerve cells in the brain.
Most often, glioblastoma begins as a grade IV tumor, with no prior evidence of a tumor. It sometimes can develop from lower-grade tumors.
While the exact cause of GBM is unknown, people with genetic diseases like Turcot syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and neurofibromatosis are at higher risk.
GBM occurs in 2-3 out of every 100,000 American adults, according to the National Cancer Institute. It accounts for 17 percent of all brain tumors and is most common in adults between 45 and 70.
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Symptoms of glioblastoma can occur quickly, without warning. They can begin when the tumor begins to put pressure on the brain. Often, symptoms can depend on the size and location of the tumor. Symptoms include:
- Severe and frequent headaches
- Nausea or vomiting
- Weakness or loss of sensation in the arms and/or legs
- Speech, vision, or memory problems
- Loss of appetite
- Personality changes
How Is Glioblastoma Diagnosed?
The location and size of a glioblastoma tumor can help determine treatment options.
How Glioblastoma Is Treated
Glioblastoma tumors contain a variety of cells, making them particularly difficult to treat. Patients diagnosed with GBM tumors often have a combination of treatments.
- Surgery: Treatment usually begins with surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible and relieve pressure on the brain. Because GBM tumors can infiltrate many different parts of the brain — including important areas like language and movement centers — surgery can’t remove them entirely. Surgery typically involves an image-guided craniotomy, along with brain mapping before or after the procedure.
- Radiation: Doctors also may treat GBM tumors with radiation therapy. This treatment involves the use of high-dose radiation (i.e. X-rays) to reduce or destroy cancer cells. The X-rays can be delivered externally, in which beams of X-rays are directed at the tumor from an outside source; or internally, in which radioactive material is placed in your body near the cancer site. Radiation can be used alone or in combination with other treatments. People who get radiation may experience side effects.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to stop the growth of the tumors. The drugs can be given intravenously via IV, taken orally, or placed directly into your brain at the location of the tumor. Chemotherapy is often used in addition to other treatments and often comes with side effects.
GBM is aggressive and has a high chance of recurrence. In addition to the above treatments, many cancer centers participate in clinical trials to discover new treatments. Those may include options like gene therapy and immune therapy, along with different types of chemotherapy and radiation.
Because of the tumors’ aggressiveness, survival rates for glioblastoma are low. Just over 5% of people with GBM survive for five years after diagnosis, according to a study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Glioblastoma Multiforme. https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Glioblastoma-Multiforme
American Brain Tumor Association, Glioblastoma (GBM). https://www.abta.org/tumor_types/glioblastoma-gbm/
Joe Dangor, Mayo News Network, Study: More Aggressive Treatments Needed to Improve 5-year Survival Rate for Glioblastoma. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/study-more-aggressive-treatments-needed-to-improve-5-year-survival-rate-for-glioblastoma/
National Organization for Rare Disorders, Glioblastoma. https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/glioblastoma-multiforme/
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, Glioblastoma. https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Glioblastoma-Multiforme
The UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 60 locations throughout western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with more than 200 oncologists. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment.